Few class projects deliver the kind of global impact that comes from those in David Ashley’s course. Ashley, an executive in residence at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, teaches a course that links undergraduate students with entrepreneurs in Africa and helps them grow their businesses. The projects are part of a first-of-its-kind partnership with a U.S. African Development Foundation program that supports young entrepreneurs in Africa.
“UMD is the only school where we are implementing a program like this,” says Ellington Arnold, the entrepreneurship advisor with USADF. “In fact, we’ve received interest from other universities who wish to do a similar model.”
The entrepreneurs are building a range of companies – improving access to clean water, providing green energy, upcycling, making locally-sourced personal care products and providing video marketing services – in their home countries across sub-Saharan Africa. These startup founders were competitively selected by USADF from a program jointly run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies in Africa. Each entrepreneur is paired with a team of University of Maryland students that spend a semester consulting with them and working to solve a business problem.
“Student teams are really helping these entrepreneurs and their companies improve communities at the local level,” Ashley says. “Students get the experience of bringing something valuable to a community and seeing the impact that they can have. It gives them a sense of accomplishment that the work that they’ve done can have an impact. That builds confidence – this is not just a shelfware report that goes to a large corporation.”
The course is an elective in the QUEST honors program, a three-year program for students studying business, engineering, or science that focuses on experiential learning through multidisciplinary, team-based and hands-on projects. It’s the continuation of a Maryland Smith partnership with the African entrepreneurs that began in fall 2018.
In May 2019, several of the entrepreneurs traveled to the Washington, D.C., region where they met with congressional members and spent time at Maryland Smith, learning from faculty and meeting with QUEST students. The visit was the culmination of an eight-month business practicum run by Maryland Smith and QUEST. USADF worked with Smith faculty to develop a curriculum to deliver to the African entrepreneurs online, while QUEST students provided consulting for their companies. The student teams advised the entrepreneurs in areas such as quality management, process improvement, system design, and strategy. The entrepreneurs were able to hone their marketing materials and pitch presentations, and received research-based guidance to improve product pricing for their business markets.
The program continued with new QUEST student projects in fall 2019, then became a university course with Ashley’s class this spring. Despite the upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic has created, shifting university courses online, Ashley says the students are continuing their work with the entrepreneurs: “They were already connecting with the entrepreneurs by phone, video and email on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the entrepreneurs won’t be able to come here in May this year. Our students will have to make their final presentations virtually, then hopefully meet the entrepreneurs when they come here in the next round.”
The program, Ashley says, fits into larger university goals to make connections in Africa.
“With most study-abroad programs and work with clients overseas, the focus is often Europe and Asia,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of connections to the African community. And it’s such a huge, rich, diverse area, and in many cases, on the move. It’s an underrepresented area in the international arena, so I’m excited about that.”
For students, the program offers a chance to prepare for future careers, and an opportunity to have a greater impact.
“Working one-on-one with an entrepreneur who started a business gives the students the opportunity to have direct impact with a business that often helps a lot of people in a poor, underdeveloped area.”